‘to go to hell – or to heaven – in a handbasket’

‘hell in a handbasket’ (1841), ‘heaven in a handbasket’ (1834) in Irish contexts—‘handbasket’ chosen for alliteration with ‘hell’—‘to go to hell in a handbasket’ meant ‘to go to hell’—‘to go to heaven in a handbasket’ meant ‘to go to heaven’ or ‘to go to hell’

Read More

meaning and origin of ‘red in tooth and claw’

UK, 1857—characterised by savage violence or merciless competition—from Alfred Tennyson’s poem ‘In Memoriam’ (1850), in which ‘red in tooth and claw’ refers to Nature’s brutality

Read More

meaning and origin of ‘the milk in the coconut’

‘the milk in the coconut’: a puzzling fact or circumstance; alludes to the question of how the milk got into the coconut—of British-English origin (1832), not of American-English origin as stated by the Oxford English Dictionary

Read More

origin of ‘bobby’ and ‘peeler’ (‘police officer’)

UK, 1844—‘bobby’: a policeman—from ‘Bobby’, pet form of ‘Robert’, in allusion to Robert Peel, who, as Home Secretary, established the Metropolitan Police in 1829—cf. ‘peeler’ (1816), originally a member of the Peace Preservation Force in Ireland established in 1814 by Robert Peel

Read More

meaning and origin of ‘to raise Cain’

to create trouble or a commotion—USA, 1840—a euphemism for synonymous phrases such as ‘to raise the Devil’ and ‘to raise hell’—from the name of the eldest son of Adam and Eve and murderer of his brother Abel

Read More

the jocular origin of ‘happy as Larry’

from 1857 onwards in Australian newspapers, but apparently of Irish-English origin—the forename ‘Larry’ was probably chosen as a jocular reinforcement, a variant reduplication, of the adjective ‘happy’

Read More

look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves

This proverb is first recorded in the mid-18th century as ‘take care of the pence, and the pounds will take care of themselves’ in letters that two fathers wrote to their respective children; so new was the adage that they attributed its coinage to various persons.

Read More

meaning and origin of ‘to turn up one’s toes’

The phrase ‘to turn up one’s toes’, meaning ‘to die’, might have originated in the Irish-English phrase ‘to turn up one’s toes to the roots of the daisies’, first found in the passive form ‘with one’s toes turned up to the roots of the daisies’, meaning ‘lying dead’.

Read More

original sense of ‘chop and change’: ‘barter and exchange’

The phrase to chop and change means to change one’s opinions or behaviour repeatedly and abruptly. Here, chop originally meant to barter, and change meant to make an exchange with; in other words, this was an alliterative repetitive expression, the two verbs having roughly the same meaning (cf. also, for example, the alliterative phrase to be part and […]

Read More